When in Doubt, Choose Mercy

 


I had a student last year who drove me absolutely mad. I knew I kind of signed up for insanity when I took a job teaching seventh grade, but this kid—who will be known as Dallin for the sake of confidentiality—was my living nightmare.

In his honor, I’ve composed this acrostic poem using his fake name:

Disrespectful

Apathetic

Loud

Lazy

Inconsiderate

Naughty

Dallin’s horrible behavior peaked just as I’d returned to work from my maternity leave. I wasn’t getting any sleep, so the exhaustion combined with the workload stress combined with the guilt for leaving my baby every day combined with the crazy postpartum hormones combined with the worst student in the history of all students was just too much.

Despite his display of less-than-admirable behavior, Dallin was actually quite brilliant. He certainly had potential, and that fact manifested itself in his work from time to time. He was easily capable of earning an A in my class, but come the last week of school, he had a C+. And truthfully, I’d thought that was a generous grade considering the quality of his work.

He surprised me, though, when just days before summer break he begged me for some extra credit to raise his grade.

Outwardly, I was professional. I asked him to give me until the end of the day to think about it. And think about it I did. My thoughts went something like this:

You honestly expect me to help you after you’ve made my life miserable all year?

Do you not remember bringing me to tears? TWICE.

Do you not remember humiliating me in front of the entire class?

Do you not remember the mess you left at your desk every single day? The candy wrappers, the pencil shavings, the crumpled up sheets of paper.

Do you not remember lying to me about why you were wandering the halls?

What about all those times I caught you cheating?

Do you not remember talking back to me and interrupting almost daily?

Do you not remember disregarding every word I’ve said to you the past two months, or whispering rude things about me under your breath?  

Do you not remember triggering several emotional breakdowns?

Do you even care?

Determination to teach this kid a lesson coursed through me. Yes, I wanted revenge…on a twelve year old. Before I’d entirely made up my mind about the extra credit, the Spirit conversed with me in a very frank, very life-changing way.

Do you not remember all the times you’ve let Him down?

Do you not remember forgetting Him too quickly when things seemed to be going right, or blaming Him when they were oh so wrong?

What about those moments of ingratitude? You know there are too many to count.

Do you not remember putting forth minimum effort and STILL receiving an abundance of blessings?

What about all the times your decisions completely frustrated Him? (If a perfect God is even capable of that emotion)

Do you not remember your collection of bad habits that you just can’t seem to kick?

Do you not remember how often you’ve brought pain to His other children with your insensitive words and actions?

What about those times you did only the bare minimum for a church calling? Or all those Sundays you showed up to take the sacrament half-heartedly?

What about all the complaints you’ve hurled His way? Or phases of absolute selfishness?

What about all the things you take for granted without even knowing it?

Do you not remember placing him on the lower end of your list of priorities when life got busy?

Surely you haven’t forgotten the infinite moments of weakness, inadequacy, and failure. And let’s not forget all the times you deliberately sinned.

I think these words by Elder Uchtdorf highlight how I felt in that moment: “We must recognize that we are all imperfect—that we are beggars before God. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, meekly approached the mercy seat and pleaded for grace? Haven’t we wished with all the energy of our souls for mercy?”

As I mentally reviewed my own list of shortcomings, I felt wildly ashamed. But I knew that despite all the crappy things I’d done in life, God didn’t want to teach me a lesson. He stood ready to offer second, third, and infinite chances because He is so much more than a judge; He is a loving Father who wants me to succeed. He has loved me through every sin, weakness, and failure with a vision of what I can someday become through the Savior. To think that He loved me, and you, and all of us enough to allow His perfect Son to suffer so infinitely in a lonely garden and on a horrible cross is beyond humbling.

Peace and gratitude filled my very soul because I realized that when God has a choice to make, He always chooses mercy.

Elder Holland puts it beautifully:  “Surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it.”

And if He could exercise mercy toward me all those times that I did not deserve it, then Dallin most certainly deserved what relief and forgiveness I could offer.

So with a humbled heart and swelling appreciation for my Father and my Savior, I created an extra credit project for Dallin that was both challenging and doable. As he bounced out of my classroom, I wanted to hug the kid (yes, hug—not “teach him a lesson”, not get my revenge at last—HUG) because forgiveness does heal our wounds and replace the hurt with an uncanny sense of love for those who have wronged us.

When Dallin submitted his extra credit assignment the next day, he was a different kid. He was polite, grateful, and even very pleasant. He thanked me profusely for giving him the extra credit opportunity, and his project was evidence of that potential I mentioned earlier. It did indeed raise his grade.

I thought about Dallin a few times over summer break. I revised his poem by the way:

Daring (He summoned the courage to ask for extra credit didn’t he?)

Able

Lively

Lovable (forgiveness can do that you know)

Intelligent

None of the above adjectives mentioned in the previous poem

Each time I thought about him, I thought of how that second chance transformed Dallin into a new student. I thought about how Christ replaced my negative feelings with abundant charity for a kid I thought I could never love. But mostly I thought of my God and how maybe, just maybe in the future, He’d remember that one time I extended mercy, so that He could do the same for me.

 

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